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Everyday Heroes: Marlana VanHoose’s inspiring voice trumps physical limitations

Marlana (Photo provided)

Marlana VanHoose’s resume of music presentation exposure is wide and growing. (Photo provided)

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Marlana VanHoose, at her young age, has performed before literally thousands via live or Internet audiences. Amazingly, she claims she never gets nervous.

“I am very comfortable singing or talking in front of all those people because…I can’t see all those people,” she said with a playful grin. That is despite the fact that as a four-year-old, she sang at church and “couldn’t get used to a microphone.”

The spirited and often described as “little” 19-year-old, who lives with her parents and younger brother in the tiny town of Denver, near Paintsville, recently graduated from Johnson Central High School, where she was active in the school’s marching band and school choir, and was a popular student. The popularity makes sense. Marlana has a joyful nature and beams with confidence that she can take on the world—and win.

She actively demonstrates that every day, even though she was born with the cytomegalovirus and unable to see. She also deals with a form of cerebral palsy, diagnosed at age 2, along with scoliosis of the spine, making it difficult for her to walk long distances. But don’t look for her to use those challenges as disqualifiers for full-scale life engagement. She has already shown that having exceptional singing talent and skill on the keyboard—plus determination and profuse optimism—have opened exciting doors for her, attracting a whole host of followers—call them “Little Marlana fans”–and likely with many more to come.

Marlana is a favorite of the UK women's basketball team and its fans. (Photo provided)

Marlana is a favorite of the UK women’s basketball team and its fans. (Photo provided)

Her resume of music presentation exposure is wide and growing. She is certifiably “out there,” with YouTube appearances all over the internet. Marlana, along with her family—father David, mother Teresa, and younger brother Harley who provide transport and support–have traveled throughout Kentucky and beyond to present her gift of music. She regularly performs in Sunday church services, an avenue for which she happily shares her strong, personal Christian faith.

And that’s just a start.

Marlana often gets invited to special community events which may require significant travel, like the Waterfront Blues Fest at Portland, Oregon, or a national sports and recreation conference in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She’s made television appearances, with both CBS and ESPN having done inspirational features on her, and she received coverage on Huffingtonpost.com. In Lexington, she shared a special vocal/piano rendition of “Amazing Grace” on Tim Farmer’s Homeade Jam television show. It was later picked up on a Christian music internet site called Godvine, and it went viral.

Tim Farmer, also familiar to Kentuckians as host of the long-running outdoors program, Kentucky Afield, was duly impressed with Marlana’s performance on the show. “She is a vessel overflowing with God-given talent,” said Farmer. “When her energetic personality is focused on her music, magic happens. She sat and played a beautiful classical piece,” he continued, “and when she finished, I asked her, ‘Whose music was that?’ Her answer was: ‘Mine, I just made it up.’ Her mom chimed in: ‘It happens every day.’”

But her greatest reception, with the most rousing, rock star-type appeal, has come from her numerous nationwide appearances to huge audiences while singing America’s national anthem. At the Kentucky Wildcat women’s basketball games, Marlana is a favorite among fans, players and coaching staff alike, and she also appeared at the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. She has sung at National Basketball Association games in Brooklyn, New York and Indianapolis and, along with NASCAR Sprint Series events at the Kentucky Speedway, in Sparta, the U.S Nationals Drag Racing, Indianapolis and for both the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals, along with Lexington Legends baseball games.

“Inspiring” and “amazing” seem to be a recurring description of her moving rendition of the patriotic song. It’s as if the crowds are stricken with a wild patriotic fervor when a petite, dark-haired and soft-featured young woman wearing dark-shaded glasses strolls up to the mike and belts out an especially stirring offering of the iconic song.

Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell looks forward to Marlana’s appearances at Memorial Coliseum. “When we find out Marlana is singing at our game, I think it gives us an extra push. She gets everybody charged up. I don’t think there is any doubt about it. She is so inspiring. We love having her at our games. She’s a very talented singer and her story is an inspiration to all of us.”

Senior guard Bria Goss said that the team “takes pride in the fact she is part of our family…(and) part of the Big Blue Nation. I know when I get tired or down, I can think about all Marlana has to face on a daily basis and she’s an inspiration to me.”

Marlana is a breath of fresh air, a “feel good” story with plenty of substance to go along, featuring attributes like her strong family ties, a deep religious faith and an authentic disposition, as well as her musical success.

Rick Strole, pastor of an Illinois church where she sang, talked of his church members who are “rather shy” about their verbal responses when he preaches. “That is not a problem with Marlana,” he said, smiling. “She praises God…most every time she opens her mouth! Marlana sets the bar very high for all of us.”

 (Photo provided)

People often comment about Marlana’s joyful nature. (Photo provided)

At the First Christian Church, Versailles, pastor Marcus Lynn spoke of how “seriously she took each minute of worship…and probably the most pleasing thing to hear was her ‘amens’ during my message. Our congregation was in tears as she sang of God’s amazing grace. ” As usual, her personal demeanor touched the congregation, too, said Lynn. “She enjoyed interacting with people and learning their names, even though she most likely wouldn’t be meeting us again anytime soon.”

Her grandmother, “Mamaw Sue,” saw something special about Marlana long ago. “When she was a tiny baby, she wanted to hear gospel music instead of kids’ lullabies. She would quiet right down when I put a tape of a gospel song on,” she said.

“I started humming ‘Jesus Loves Me’ before I talked,” said Marlana. She talked about how she put her faith to work while she was still in school and heard people “use God’s name in vain,” a particular pet peeve of hers. “I wrote a letter to the superintendent,” she continued, “and said to him that I prayed for them.”

Asked about her personal heroes, she remarked: “God is my most hero.” She also mentioned “all of my teachers” and “Ms. Nancy, a school aide at Johnson Central.”

Her biggest hope in life, she pronounced, “is to sing for the Lord and get the ‘Dream Team Choir’ together.” And what might the makeup of that lofty group be? “Thousands of people,” she explained,” that has all the gospel singers, no matter if they’re country, contemporary rock, pop or classical.”

Marlana has amazing confidence in her abilities to perform. “I have ‘sensitive hearing,’” she said. “I can hear extremely well…perfect pitch and good ability to sing in front of people. I can do anything with music. I use it for the Lord.”

This is her upbeat attitude, and it is true while dealing with multiple disabilities that would be overwhelming to many others. She spent a year at the School for the Blind in Louisville. She loves to read in Braille. Interestingly, Marlana resists playing a guitar because, she said, “A guitar is for sighted people. It’s not healthy for me…I get callouses on my fingers and won’t be able to read Braille.” Relying on natural talent, only recently has Marlana started taking singing lessons, in Prestonsburg, and that has added to her voice range performance.

She has participated athletically in the Kentucky Special Olympic Games as well as singing in the event. “Marlana, like so many of our athletes, excels both on and off the playing field,” said Special Olympics communications director Mark Buerger. “Whether Marlana is competing in sports or singing in front of a large audience, she is breaking barriers!”

Her father, David, talked about her grit. “She doesn’t give up (on her challenges). She fights through them. Her disabilities that we see are abilities to her. She doesn’t let any of it hold her back.” And Marlana’s mother, Teresa, remarked that because of her daughter’s example, “She’s what got me into church.”

Taking her talent and personality to far reaches outside Kentucky, she made a big splash in Portland, Oregon, last summer where she participated with United By Music—North America, an organization providing performance opportunities for musically talented people with disabilities. There, Marlana performed in the hugely popular Waterfront Blues Festival, where over 100,000 people attend annually.

Officials from UBM-NA “discovered” Marlana from her video music performances showcased all over the Internet, took interest and asked her to come be a featured part of the festivities. The organization added extra opportunities for her to perform around the festival, according to Amanda Gresham, and “for the first time in the Festival’s history, one of our organization’s performers started the festival off by singing the national anthem. She was quite an ambassador for her state of Kentucky. Everywhere she went, she proudly told people where she was from.”

And without a doubt, people in the commonwealth are bursting with pride about their little Marlana, too.
This story is reprinted from the March issue of Kentucky Monthly and is also included in Steve Flairty’s book, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” set for release in 2015.


Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and an author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. He is currently working on “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” due to be released in spring 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Read his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

For more from Steve Flairty, click here.

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